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Home Perfumery 


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Home Perfumery 

Written By: Sean Michael Ragan 


Additional strainer(s) (1) 
to fit the pot 

Condensing bowl (1) 

of a larger diameter than the pot 

Eye dropper (1) 

Hot pad (1) 


Oven mitts (1) 

Pliers (1) 


Pruning shears (1) 

Receiving bowl (1) 
to fit inside the pot 

Stove (1) 

Strainer (1) 
to fit the pot 


Raw plant matter (1) 

Here I use 4" sprigs of fresh rosemary. 

160 total. 



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Home Perfumery 

This all started when my Mom was exposed to radiation and developed a super-power. 


At 58, my mother was treated for cancer with injections of radioactive iodine. When it was 
over, her cancer was gone, but she'd developed an unnaturally acute sense of smell, which 
seems to be permanent. She soon became fascinated with perfumery and aromatherapy, 
and one day asked me, "How do you capture a natural fragrance?" 

The trick is called steam distillation, and it's little known today because the fragrance 
industry has replaced the independent perfumer, who used to sweat in solitude over a 
bubbling basement still. But in 18th-century France, the perfumer's knowledge of steam 
distillation amounted to a kind of practical alchemy — the ability to capture a beautiful, 
ephemeral sensation and preserve it for sale. 

Here we extract the earthy scent of rosemary, but almost any fragrant plant should work well 
for this project. The technique is simple: steam rises through a strainer full of plant matter, 
vaporizing volatile oils and other fragrant compounds, which condense on an icy bowl and 
drip into a small receiving bowl. Start your essence! 

CAUTION: Do not use glass cookware in this project unless you understand how to prevent 
breakage due to thermal shock. Even borosilicate glass can shatter explosively if heated or 
cooled too rapidly. Also, be very careful to avoid steam burns while inspecting the still 
and/or emptying the receiving bowl. 

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Home Perfumery 

• Decide what kind of fragrance(s) 
you would like to extract. 
Generally, the stronger your plant 
matter smells to begin with, the 
better. Rosemary, lemon verbena, 
vanilla, scented gardenia, lavender 
and wild rose are just a few of the 
many possibilities. 

In preparing your plants, there is a 
tradeoff between the need to pack 
as many plants into the still as 
possible and the need to avoid any 
processing (such as drying or 
grinding) that releases the plant's 
fragrances prematurely. 

Fresh, whole plants are best if you 
have a large still with plenty of 
room. Dried whole plants are 
commonly used. Grinding is 
generally not recommended. We 
compromised by gently stripping 
the leaves off fresh rosemary 
sprigs with our fingers, as shown in 
the photo. 

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VppoShrub Divqrum 

Condenser bow( 

Plant matter 

Receiver bowl 

Short strainer 

Tall strainer 

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Set the pot on the stove and fill it with water to just below the bottom strainer when it's in 
place. Tap water is fine. Then put the strainer in place. 

Fill the bottom strainer with an 
even, loose layer of your plant 
matter. You may compact the 
plants a bit, but be sure to leave 
them loose enough to allow steam 
to pass through from below. 

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Home Perfumery 

• The upper strainer provides a level 
resting surface for the small 
receiving bowl, which makes it 
easy to insert and remove even 
while hot. 

• I think of a layer of plants as a 
"stage." The diagram (in Step 3) 
shows only one stage, but in fact 
you can have as many stages as 
you can find strainers to fit your 
pot. The only limit is their structural 
stability — don't pile them high 
enough to tip over! 

The small receiving bowl sits on 
the bottom of the uppermost 
strainer. If you have only 1 
strainer, you can just set the bowl 
on top of the plants, or you can 
clear a space in the plant layer for 
the bowl to rest. Just make sure 
that it's centered in the pot, and as 
level as possible. 

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• Fill the large condensing bowl 
generously with ice and position it 
in the opening of the top strainer, 
as shown. Make sure that it's level 
and centered over the receiving 
bowl. Your still is complete. I 
named mine the VapoShrub. 

• Set the burner to medium-high heat and bring the water in the pot to an even simmer. I find 
that I can judge by the sound of the simmering water. But if you need to lift off the bowls 
and strainer(s) to check visually, it won't hurt anything as long as you remember to protect 
your hands with oven mitts against possible burns from escaping steam. 

• The boiling water produces steam, which passes through your plant material, where it 
collects volatile fragrance compounds before rising to the top of the pot. There, it 
encounters the cold outer surface of the large bowl and condenses, with its extracted 
volatiles. Condensate flows down the surface of the bowl and accumulates at its lowest 
point, from which it drips into the receiving bowl. 

• Depending on how much material you extract and the particular distillation conditions, the 
contents of the receiving bowl may form a clear floral water, a cloudy emulsion, or 
separate layers of water and oils. 

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Home Perfumery 

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Home Perfumery 

• Check on the distillation 
periodically to empty the small 
receiving bowl. Be wary of steam 
burns when you remove the 
condensing bowl, and don't try to 
handle the receiving bowl with bare 
hands. Use pliers or kitchen tongs 
to grasp the receiving bowl by its 
rim, lift it out of the still, and pour 
off into ajar. 

• Each time you empty the bowl, use 
a different container so that you 
can compare the smell and 
appearance of each fraction. This 
will help you decide when the 
distillation is complete, and will 
prevent diluting the more potent, 
earlier fractions with the later ones, 
which will be weaker. 

• If your distillate has a layer of oil 
floating on top, congratulate 
yourself: this is the essential oil of 
your plant material. Skim it off with 
an eyedropper or turkey baster. It 
will keep indefinitely. 

• If there's no oil, or not enough to 
separate, don't despair. The watery 
herbal distillate that you've 
produced, also known as a 
hydrosol or floral water, is also a 
valuable commodity. It should keep 
for a long time in the refrigerator, or 
you can dilute it with 1 part in 10 of 
strong rubbing or grain alcohol and 
store it in a cool, dark place. 

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Fragrance Uses 

Essential oils can be used to scent homemade soaps, lotions, or candles. Drop a cup of floral 
water into your bathwater for a scented bath, or heat some in a vaporizer for aromatherapy. 
Mom adds some to her humidifier, or to a dishcloth that she tosses in the drier to scent the 
laundry. Experiment! 

This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 22 . page 135. 

This document was last generated on 201 2-1 1 -03 02:48:1 5 AM. 

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